Popular Science Gets Rid of Comments — What this Means for Social-Media Learning

Wow. What a firestorm! You'd think the U.S. Government was going to go into default or something. Popular Science decides to get rid of its comments–fearing that good science was being misperceived because of online comments.

Here are just a few of the many articles/blogs on the controversy:

I few quick comments (before I've read the actual science that Popular Science cites and other related research, which, I must add, I find a fascintating topic):

If Popular Science is using only one or two studies to draw conclusions, they don't understand social science. Specifically, they don't understand that social science research generally requires–at a minimum–dozens of studies to draw firm conclusions, fence of boundaries, and discover contingencies. Not always, but usually.

I agree that society today is getting more and more anti-science, anti-evidence, and anti-wisdom.

I agree that there is justification for worrying about the effect of social-media pollution. As a guy who reads over 200 articles from scientific refereed journals on learning, memory, and instruction each year–and thus who probably knows more than the average bear in my field–I've seen lots of categorically-wrong information floated in social-media comments in our field. Of course, I am not infallible, all-knowing, nor omnicient. Anyone who reads the research knows how little of the whole he/she can possibly know. But still, I do know enough to know when some notions of learning are fundamentally flawed. AND in the workplace learning-and-performance field, there is much that is foolhardy, misinformed, and harmful–and social media has not stopped this from happening.

There are some victories, however, even if they are not complete. For example, social-media and the internet have made it less likely that people in our field are spouting off about people learning 10% of what they see, etc. Maybe I have made a difference.

I know that comments have been helpful to me personally in other contexts. For example, the New York Times comments have been very helpful to me in seeing the strengths and weaknesses of the original article.

I got rid of unmoderated comments on my blog purely due to the large amount of spam that was being posted. Most commenters here have helpful things to say.

Popular Science argued specifically that people in general are misinformed about science, lending credence to the idea that comments on vetted scientific articles for a popular audience may be a special case.

Popular Science also argued (see the NPR interview) that they made the decision because they would rather put their resources into creating good articles in the first place rather than moderating their comment sections.

I wish someone who studies this issue intensively would create a rubric, helping us understand when and how comments can be valuable–and when they cause more harm then good. It can't be black and white–comments are good, comments are bad. Most things in human nature don't work like that.

For the workplace learning-and-performance field, my recommendation to you is: Don't assume that comments are good or comments are bad. Do assume however, that you may need a way to regulate, monitor, or control comments to make them helpful. I'll never forget the time that I was arguing with a social-media evangelist who was claiming that social media was always corrective in time. A member of the audience interrupted with the story of how social media killed a couple of soldiers when they used information from social-media to attempt to deal with an improvised explosive device.


Some previous posts on social media: